On April 18, Ira Neimark, retired Chairman and CEO of Bergdorf Goodman died. Ira was 97 years young. Ira was a legend in the industry particularly in the luxury genre. He was, in fact, a prime mover in what is today\’s luxury department store niche. He transformed Bergdorf Goodman from a store where \”blue haired ladies\” lunched (his characterization) to a world-renowned modern and contemporary platform for design and style. Many of today\’s most famous iconic designers credit Ira and Bergdorf with facilitating their early and lasting success.
I met Ira over a decade ago at an industry event and invited him to be a guest speaker at my Retailing Leadership course at Columbia\’s Business School. Not only did he enthusiastically agree to speak, he went on to do so each semester for years on end. He, at some point early on, revealed to me that he had served briefly as an Adjunct Professor at Columbia years ago but had not been asked back because he was \”too tough.\” I can easily relate as one of Ira\’s conditions of serving as a guest speaker was that all of my students had to dress properly for him. I argued successfully on my students\’ behalf by telling Ira that I had a hard-enough time at Columbia for the fact that I took attendance let alone imposed a dress code. He graciously demurred but never failed to point out a particularly well-dressed student, whether male or female at the beginning of each of his sessions.
Tough as nails, yes, but a true sweetheart inside, he always came to my class impeccably dressed and armed with a meticulously prepared set of remarks. He also never failed to invite students to reach out to him \”one- on-one\” seeking advice and networking opportunities. He would always recount his own pathway to success which began at age 17 as an Assistant Door Boy at Bonwit Teller on Fifth Avenue. This, coupled with having had the benefit of a long list of highly esteemed retail mentors. \”Find a company you feel you would want to associate with. Offer to sweep the floors if that\’s what it takes to receive a job offer and then work your way up the ladder with the help of someone who will help guide you, as he himself had done.\”
He was a passionate proponent of old school retailing: great highly differentiated assortments, great merchandise presentation, the highest caliber of customer service, all with a backdrop of intense inventory and expense management. Ira was a devoted but pragmatic perfectionist and a vigorous competitor. He only had one door to work with at Bergdorf Goodman in contrast with the Bloomingdale, Saks and Neiman Marcus extensive real estate portfolios, but he made that one door \”the place\” for designers\’ assortments. Ira and Bergdorf became a force of nature in the luxury industry.
Ira Neimark \”forgot\” more about the luxury retail business than most who run this rarified channel will ever know. He was unyielding in his insistence that Bergdorf Goodman be viewed as the gold standard in presentation and customer service. In retirement he would often complain to all who would listen of what he viewed as examples of the decline and fall of the industry. Automated switchboards, invisible, ungracious and less than knowledgeable sales associates were all his pet peeves. How could anyone who heard him speak about the state of the industry disagree?
Soon after I met Ira he asked me about the prospect of his writing a book about his experiences. Along with many others in his circle of friends and admirers, I enthusiastically supported his next career as an author. Ira in fact went on to write five books, many of which I had the privilege of viewing and commenting on while in draft form. He has left a legacy for all to see and benefit from. Ira became somewhat of a close friend, emailing me regularly with observations and suggestions when he wasn\’t guest lecturing.
All who knew and worked with Ira will miss him dearly.